He began running film on a 35 millimeter projector at his parents’ drive-in, the Sunset Drive-in, at around eight years old.
The Sunset Drive-in has been showing the community of San Luis Obispo movies for almost 70 years and is one of the few remaining drive-in theaters on the coast of California today. Owner Larry Rodkey said he wants to keep it that way.
He took over the drive-in in 1985. Prior, his father had worked for 14 years as the manager of the theater.
“When I was seven or eight years old, I knew what I wanted to do. And I’m fulfilled in my dream. And now I just want to keep it going,” Rodkey said.
Although the Sunset has stood the test of time, it now runs off a digital projector.
“This is the film,” he said while holding up a hard drive loaded with Frozen 2 and Maleficent, the movies playing at that night’s double feature. He said he is limited with the new system. Unlike with the old style of 35 millimeter film, he now requires a digital license from the publisher whenever he wants to show a movie.
“I wanted to be the projectionist and I enjoyed playing with the projectors, making the film up tearing it down. Now there is none of that,” Rodkey said.
Rodkey said some of the biggest hardships with owning a drive-in are bad weather and the increasing cost of living. However, he still plans to keep his drive-in running and in the family.
“This property here is worth a lot more than having the drive-in — in theory,” Rodkey said. “I’m not gonna tear it down… I have now been here longer than my dad was. So yeah, he would be happy. This was his baby. I was real close to my dad.”
Along with The Sunset Drive-in, Rodkey’s parents bought the Fair Oaks Theatre in Arroyo Grande when he was 16 years old which was then passed on to him. He also bought a second drive-in theater in Barstow called the Skyline Drive-in.
“One of the appeals [of the Sunset] is definitely sharing that nostalgic feeling, it’s been around since the 1950s as just pure American history,” Sunset Drive-In employee Ronin DesVoigne said. “It’s like much like the same appeal to watching a movie on a projector screen the backyard.”
DesVoigne went on to say that he thinks Sunset is a special thing for people, like aerospace engineering freshman Sierra Powell, to experience.
“I saw my first movie there when I was three months old,” Powell said.
Powell said she and her friends have taken advantage of the low prices and the outdoor setting to bring couches and air mattresses with them in the back of pick up trucks to watch their movies.
Movies are $10 for each adult and $4 for children. The Sunset Drive-in shows two movies, known as a double feature, every night, rain or shine.